JUBA - A United Nations report accuses South Sudanese rebel and government military commanders of illegally logging and selling teak and mahogany trees in the former Central Equatoria and Eastern Equatoria States. A rebel spokesman denies the allegation, while a spokesperson for the South Sudan Peoples Defense Forces declined to comment.
A Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition spokesman denies rebels loyal to Riek Machar are doing business selling ecologically sensitive trees.
"If there are still forces of IO in Kajo-Keji area, they are still waiting for the second phase [cantonment] and it is not that they are doing business as put across [in the U.N. report]. One thing the U.N. is doing is to put confusion when peace is moving on well like that," Colonel Lam Paul Gabriel told South Sudan in Focus.
In a 33-page, Nov. 22 report, the U.N. Panel of Experts said they received "credible information" indicating Major General Moses Lokujo of SPLA-IO Division 2B was "directly involved in the taxation of teak and mahogany" being illegally harvested in Liwolo, Kariwa, Kendire, Kala, Ajio, Lora Manglotore, Bori, Lowili and Katire payams, all of which are under the control of opposition forces.
The report also said Lokujo has been active in transporting logs across South Sudan's borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. Gabriel said U.N. experts connected Lokujo to the illegal activity because of logging in Kajo-Keji.
"The truth is, the logging is done by the community approved by the landlords," Lokujo told South Sudan in Focus.
Gabriel criticized the U.N. for calling teak logging illegal in rebel territory, saying the SPLA-IO has the right to serve civilians under their protection.
"What do they mean like illegal in a controlled area of SPLA-IO? It is supposed to be legal because that thing moved through the community and it comes up to the level of government [IO leadership]. During war, there are those who are loyal to the government, and there are those who are loyal to the rebels, they will always be loyal to us and those with the government will be loyal to the government," Lam told South Sudan in Focus.
Gabriel was featured in a video documentary entitled, "The Profiteers," for his role as a middle man who facilitated the transportation of timber from rebel-controlled areas in Yei, South Sudan, to Uganda.
After the video was shared widely on social media, the SPLA-IO deputy spokesman recorded a Facebook live-video in which he denied any involvement in the timber business.
The Panel of Experts report said opposition forces harassed community members who refused to follow their orders, leading many to flee to refugee camps in Uganda.
Gabriel strongly disagreed with the U.N. findings, saying people were fleeing clashes between the SPLA-IO and competing rebels of the National Salvation Front (NAS).
"After NAS attacked us in 2017 in Kajo-Keji and we lost, three quarters of these civilians — they went back to Uganda. We fought for seventeen days against the forces of Thomas Cirilo and all these IDPS there moved to Uganda. But the U.N. to restrict it to the harassment of the SPLA-IO, they have already taken sides with forces of Thomas Cirilo," Lam told VOA.
According to the U.N. panel, timber traders pay the SPLA-IO up to $600 for the right to log and $800 to transport logs through their territories.
The logs are mainly sold in neighboring Uganda for $400 to $600 per log, according to "The Profiteers."
The U.N. experts said South Sudan Peoples Defense Force commanders in Pageri and Ajaci counties in the former Eastern Equatoria State have traded in timber since April 2017.
The U.N. experts said the SSPDF, especially units of its Tiger Division deployed in Moli, are illegally cutting timber and taxing logging companies.
The Panel says the beneficiary of the illegal logging was Major General Johnson Juma, head of administration and finance for the SSPDF.
The Panel of Experts said illegal tree logging in South Sudan has left locals with no income in those areas.
The South Sudan Peoples Defense Forces Spokesman Major General Lul Ruai declined to comment on the U.N. allegations.